Joe stayed out of the way, hiding in the shadows, but he could hear the raucous crowd count down, and then the cheers and celebration as the Christmas lights were switched on in the heaving city centre. He tried to smile at the notion that families were together and having a pleasant evening, but he couldn’t find one. It had slipped away from his dirty face before it had started. He pulled his tattered bit of blanket towards him. It was still sodden from the horrendous downpour the night before. It would have been easy for tears to fall at that moment. Not that he cried very often at all; the exhaustion and the ice-cold wind were just too much for him at that moment. Last night had been typically terrible. Saturday nights always were. But the rain hadn’t stopped. It had gushed down the streets and he had ended up soaked through to his skin. Drunken revellers had been particularly cruel and vindictive. It had started with juvenile jibes; which Joe had completely ignored. The quips were far from intelligent and the drunkards were unable to offer anything witty or that he hadn’t heard a thousand times before. But then they started to throw their glass bottles in his direction and one had gashed his arm. He refused to retaliate. He’d only end up in the shit. They were, somehow, considered to be real people in the world because they had jobs and houses, bank accounts and Wi-Fi passwords. He was a homeless man; invisible, worthless, destined to draw last breaths upon these tired streets. And then one of them had unzipped the fly of his crisp, new jeans and proceeded to take a piss on Joe. A spray of warm, yellow urine had covered his shoes. He had wanted to tell them that he used to be a real person too. But, what was the point? They wouldn’t listen. And nobody ever cared. They wouldn’t even make eye contact. They would deliberately look in the opposite direction. Or incessantly at their phones. They did that all the time now. Living in a pretend way. Tap-tap-tapping and swiping. Not seeing the reality in front of their faces.
He had been real once too; existing on paper and even owning a roof over his head. He’d been an English teacher at a secondary school. He’d been married. He’d had a daughter. And when that beautiful, funny, sweet-natured little girl had been diagnosed with Leukaemia, things had swiftly begun to fall apart. Jo-Jo was as ill as anyone could be. The treatment had robbed her of her golden ringlets and it had left her so wiped out that she could barely sit up most days. Suddenly, there was a lot of vomit and melancholy. He had promised her that she would be okay. But she wasn’t. And she had died. And the angry recriminations arrived quickly. And a marriage collapsed. And a job dissolved. And there wasn’t any help. Joe had been rapidly beaten up by the benefits system. Their point-collecting test had deemed him capable of work because he had thought to comb his hair for his appointment. In truth, he wasn’t capable of anything. Not even killing himself, there had been several unsuccessful suicide attempts. How many of us bring children into this world? And how would you feel to watch them die? It’s a life-long mourning. No first teenage kiss. No jubilant or despairing exam results. No first job. No future. Nothing. Just a funeral and too many flowers. So many flowers that they quickly become and personify the stench of death itself. Never to be purchased again. Never to set foot in a florist to be greeted by that horrific, poignant aromatic reminder. Because it’s too much. And it remains too much.
Joe’s stomach angrily growls and he can’t remember when he last ate. Mainly because he isn’t even able to remember the days, other than Saturday when he wonders if it will be the end for him. He would mostly welcome that. He’s worn-out and consumed by grief and regrets. It might have been Thursday. But Thursday might have been Wednesday. Or Friday. He only knows that he is starving hungry, and the sensation is only becoming worse by the minute as the wind carries the scent of the Christmas market in his direction. He can smell chestnuts. He thinks of Christmas dinner with his family. Christmas crackers, sprouts and a turkey crown. Smiles and stockings and waiting for Santa the night before. He is so far away from this world now and he knows that he won’t ever be able to find his way back. Joe’s tired and the hunger pangs are making him feel sick, so he shuts his eyes and hopes to succumb to sleep.
The cold weather has made him ill. He has a cold and it has gone to his chest. He rattles as he coughs and splutters. He thinks he has pulled a rib as the pain is so severe. It’s Saturday again, and he’s too weak to deal with the drunken bullies. He must get away. He needs to move from this subway. He’s too much of an easy target here. Though he doesn’t know where he will go. Certainly, not the park. Another homeless man was stabbed in there last week. He’d seen the ambulance and then read about it in a discarded newspaper. As much as his body ached, he would have to walk for a while.
He had ended up at the gardens. He wouldn’t normally visit this place. He didn’t like feeling as though he was exposed. He didn’t want the families with children to see him. But, this is where his feet had taken him, and he felt a little brighter just at the sight of it; this urban greenery tucked away amongst the grey of the buildings. He liked the water features and the lights at night-time. And as his dark brown eyes scanned the area, he saw an actual angel. At least she looked like one. Ethereal in white lace and soft blonde curls. Her lips were painted pink and they smiled and smiled, as did her eyes. A sigh escaped from Joe’s mouth. She posed for the camera and pure joy radiated from her pretty face. A bride. A beautiful bride on her wedding day. She was perfection; heavenly and divine. He looked to see who the lucky groom was. He wasn’t quite sure at first, they all looked the same in their suits. He realised that all he had to do was follow her adoring gaze. It was a tall chap, serious looking. He smiled too, though not with his eyes like she did. Her smile could light up the darkest room.
She shivered now, the early December air nipped at her through her thin white bridal gown. Though, the groom didn’t seem to notice. Joe suddenly wished that he had a nice jacket, so that he could be a gentleman and offer it to her. He would place it around her thin shoulders so that she could feel warm. A lady in lilac, wearing an ostentatious feather hat, began to usher everyone across the way. The bride offered her slender, pale hand, reaching out to grasp and entwine her new husband’s fingers. But, again, he didn’t notice, as he laughed with his friends and swiped at his phone. Her hand went ignored and Joe saw the crestfallen look upon her face. He longed to see her smile return, and it briefly reappeared once she realised that her guests were watching her, but it wasn’t real.
He felt bad. He had accidentally witnessed a private moment, a secret thought, that wasn’t his to see. Because her beauty meant that he couldn’t take his eyes away from her, he had become a kind of voyeur. He made himself turn away then, and he was going to stand up and walk away until he suddenly felt as though someone was now watching him.
It was her. It was the angel. She studied him from the other side of the artificial stream. He felt his cheeks burn crimson. He had forgotten this feeling, he was embarrassed. He half-enjoyed the old warmth in his face. She smiled at him; her real one, and his cheeks reddened with the heat further still. Before he could even think about it, a hearty beam spread across his face. She tried to coax him towards her with her hands, but he didn’t move. He didn’t understand. She pointed to the building behind her. The wedding party were filing in and disappearing from his view. Was she inviting him inside? Because that was madness. She tried again, pointing to the entrance, but he shook his head from side to side, he couldn’t possibly accept her invitation. Her special day. Her fancy party. He stank. He was filthy. He was a mess. A coughing fit abruptly halted his train of thought, as he held on to the bench beneath him for support as the pain in his ribs jabbed at his insides. When it finally started to ease off, he looked up, and the angel had gone.
Joe struggled to his feet, and how his bones ached as he shuffled up the path and even more so as he fought to ascend the steps. But, to his amazement, there was a prize waiting for him at the top. She was back, and she was even more truly exquisite up close.
“If you won’t come to me, then I’ll come to you,” she said.
She had two paper plates, one in each hand, and they were both laden with buffet food. There were tiny sandwiches and mini sausage rolls, petite pastries, and crisps. She popped them down on the nearest seat.
Even her voice was alluring; silky and gentle, it matched her face.
He was flustered as her kindness was so unexpected.
“You should get back to your party,” was all he could mutter.
“You’re welcome to join us. There’s more food than we could eat and you look as though you could do with warming up.”
“I won’t fit in, but thanks for asking.”
“Who cares? It’s my wedding, I can invite who I like,” she announced, her hands on her hips.
“Angelica, what on earth are you doing out there, talking to that tramp? Come back inside,” her new husband bellowed his order.
She winced at his choice of words.
“I’m going now. Enjoy the rest of your evening,” said Joe.
“Sorry,” she whispered, with the merest hint of tears in her eyes.
“Don’t be. I’ve been called a lot worse. Thanks for the food,” he said, accepting the tempting treats.
He turned away and walked down the high street. He felt sad that he had caused a scene, even though he surely hadn’t intended to.
Joe wondered if he would ever forget her. He thought that he probably wouldn’t. She had been such a mesmerising sight. He smiled that she had the word ‘angel’ in her name. So fitting.
Another week had passed and the Christmas shoppers were flapping in a blind panic now. He thought of how excited his daughter, Jo-Jo, used to get at this time of year, though his brain fought not to, as the pain was unbearable. He worried about the harm he was doing as he bottled up the feelings and tucked them away. Some nights, he would wake in a sweat, struggling to conjure up the image of her sweet, freckled face. He knew there were freckles, at least. But, she was slipping away further still, even after her death. Lost in his thoughts, he didn’t realise that someone had sat down beside him.
“Penny for them,” came a familiar mellifluous voice.
The angel had returned. And he couldn’t help but smile. It was such a gift to see her again. He noticed the garish, bright red Christmas jumper she wore, a big reindeer with a pom-pom nose, and it amused him.
“I was wondering if you’re wearing that jumper for a bet,” he laughed.
She put some pound coins into his palm and grinned at him.
“It’s a work thing, for charity,” she explained.
He nodded, he had seen a lot of festive jumpers just lately. It must be a new thing, he mused.
“How are you? Has that cough got any better?” she asked him.
“I’m not sure it ever really goes away,” he said, with a shrug.
She looked sad then, and he wished that he had offered her a different answer, a better one. He couldn’t stand to see the pain in her blue eyes.
“I have been thinking about you a lot, and I don’t even know your name.”
He blushed that he had been in her thoughts, that had quite made his day.
“Joe,” he replied.
“I made you some soup,” she announced, pulling a large flask out of a rucksack.
“Gosh, that’s very kind. Thank you.”
“In fact, all of this is for you. You can just take the bag. There’s a blanket, and some socks and a few other bits I thought you might need.”
He was astounded. He wanted to say something magnificent. He had once taken great pride in his vocabulary and word choices. Now, he had nothing, and he felt frustrated by his silence. And the silence continued to grow until it almost became a third person upon that bench, sitting between them.
“If you don’t want them, I won’t be offended. Oh dear. I’m sorry, have I done the wrong thing?”
She was visibly upset now and he hated himself at that moment. He collapsed under the emotion, tears leaked down his dirt-stained face. It was as though she had opened something inside him; unlocked an old, abandoned door, turned on the stiff, rusty tap.
“I am not used to this level of kindness, you must forgive me. You are an angel. A real angel,” he wept.
She threw herself in his direction, dabbing tissue to his wet face, hugging him fiercely as though it could fix all that was broken. And they remained huddled together for a long time, crying quietly into the night. He cried for Jo-Jo. He cried for his old life that had cruelly disintegrated. He cried for this beautiful young woman who had chosen to help him. It was late when they parted, and he couldn’t help but question why she had elected to stay with him for so long, what with her new husband surely waiting for her at home.
Midway through December, Joe was flagging. He was tired. Exhausted. His bones ached and his legs were incredibly stiff in the morning. Someone had hit him last night, he had been punched in the face by a drunken stranger. No explanation was given. The young man merely stumbled away afterwards, as though it had never happened. His mind kept travelling back to marking English assignments, the taste of mulled wine and Jo-Jo opening the windows of her advent calendar. He didn’t think that he could do this any longer. He wanted to fall asleep, under those stars, and never wake up.
As though she had read his thoughts and peered into his very soul, the angel returned once again. She’d brought boiling hot coffee and mince pies for them both. They talked a lot. He told her about his daughter and his failed marriage and when he had been a real person with a job and a mortgage. She got cross with him and told him that he was the most real person that she had ever met. She sobbed at his tale of woe, especially when he described Jo-Jo taking her final breaths and that, as hard as he tried, he couldn’t remember her funeral.
He asked her what she was doing for Christmas and her whole body stiffened. She became anxious and prickly and didn’t want to talk about home, so he left it. If she didn’t wish to talk about it, he certainly wouldn’t push her. He could only guess that the new marriage wasn’t going so well. That devastated him as he vividly recalled her smile and the love in her eyes when she had been that bride, only weeks ago. He felt this more when it was time to say goodbye. She didn’t seem to want to let him go and he knew that he would worry about her until he was lucky enough to see her again. She had promised to come and find him next Saturday. He would make sure that he was aware of the passing days. He would count them. He had something to look forward to for the first time in a long time.
True to her word, there she was. She was wrapped up warm in a white winter coat, fur around the hood, and she still appeared angelic and magical to his eyes. She had brought croissants and hot, sweet tea today. She was fretting about a presentation that she had to give at work. He went over her notes and corrected her grammar, which only served to amuse her to see that the teacher in him hadn’t disappeared at all. They talked about Christmas traditions and they laughed as they compared their childhoods, which weren’t so different really. At one point during the afternoon, there was a long pause in their conversation, which seemed somehow to be her doing. They simply listened to the sounds. The city centre had become a miniature fairground. They could hear the laughter of children, and it didn’t hurt him as much as it once would have. He could handle it because she was there. Joe could handle anything if Angelica was there. She brought him comfort, hope and joy.
The week before Christmas, he felt himself pining for her company. He thought of her wrapping presents, a glass of wine and carols on the radio. Her face illuminated by the lights on the fragrant Christmas tree. He hoped that she was happy. More than anything in the world.
Time dragged horribly as he didn’t see her at all. Where was she? Was everything okay? He didn’t know where to find her, so he was stuck in this terrible limbo of waiting, waiting, waiting.
It wasn’t until Christmas Eve that she turned up, and he could immediately see that all was not well. She had been crying. Her eyes were puffy and red, her face was blotchy. He was on the ground in the subway and she scurried underneath the blanket and he tried to share all the warmth with her that he could.
“Angels shouldn’t cry,” he whispered into her forehead.
“It’s over,” she sobbed.
He didn’t need to ask. He understood. He had half-expected this kind of news.
“Then, what a mammoth loss he shall suffer,” he said.
“You talk about real people, Joe. Money doesn’t make you real. Having a heart makes you real. And you must stop believing that I am some kind of angel, because I’m not. Not at all.”
“You will always be an angel in my eyes.”
“He isn’t real, Joe, he’s not like you.”
He wanted to tell her something sensible, some sage advice about patching things up. But he couldn’t. The very second that he had seen them on their big day, he had known that this man had not deserved her. Perhaps, no one did.
“It’s Christmas soon,” he said.
Angelica looked at her watch.
“In about an hour. Can we just sit here for a while?” she asked.
“Well, I would have to cancel my meal at The Ritz, but, sure, anything for you,” he grinned.
She laughed then, a sincere hearty chuckle, and she snuggled in closer and closed her eyes. He tried to stay awake, to wish her Merry Christmas and send her back to her home with central heating and a bed, but he fell asleep too. Cosy contentment was a heady concoction.
He awoke to her sharp elbow, digging into his side, jostling him awake.
“Morning,” she said, “Happy Christmas.”
“It’s the happiest Christmas I have had in a long time. Come on, get up, get going. I won’t let you spend your Christmas here.”
“I won’t let you spend your Christmas here either,” she announced staunchly, hands on hips and a determined look in her eye.
“I don’t have much choice,” he reminded her, “However, you do.”
“I want to go to my mum’s house.”
“Wise choice, she hides the sprouts underneath your mashed potato,” he smiled at the memory she had told him about.
“Come with me.”
“I can’t. Look at me.”
“I just see a brilliant man. Maybe, he could do with a hot bath. I will make sure you get one. I want you to have a Christmas dinner, Joe. Mum always makes too much food. But, more than anything, I want you to be with me. Please, Joe. You wouldn’t come in to my wedding reception. Please, come with me now.”
She stood up and extended her hand, her eyes pale, large, and appealing.
He was scared. Petrified of what this could all mean. But, more than anything, he desired to be at her side today. And so, he took her hand.
I have been increasingly saddened, by the growing number of homeless people on our streets today. I always stop and chat and offer what I can, despite not having much to give myself. Nobody should be in this position, and it breaks my heart. My story has a happy conclusion, one that most people don’t get. This story comes with a promise. Myself and my daughters will be wrapping up Christmas parcels of warm socks and festive food. We will be giving them out to homeless people in the days before Christmas. Thank you for reading. Christmas is a time for giving. Let’s give to those who need it the most.
Author of Black Eyed Boy & Green Eyed Girl.